In Good Company: Eyekonz

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A team of young girls in Philadelphia claim their place in the sport of lacrosse.

Last updated: October 21, 2021
13 min read

In Good Company is a series about athletic teams and clubs that are challenging the status quo.

"I am a force of nature".

"I am a beast".

Thirty girls line up in front of a full-length mirror in a field at Mander Playground in North Philadelphia. One by one they take turns stepping up to the mirror while their coach, Jazmine A. Smith (Coach Jaz), encourages each one to "look yourself in the eye" and say affirming statements. Practice can't start until they do.

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Coach Jazmine Smith and Erin Mobley

It's a confidence-building technique at Eyekonz Sports, the lacrosse and hockey league Coach Jaz founded to serve girls around Philadelphia and get more women of colour playing a mostly white sport.

This weekday evening, a brisk bite in the air signals the start of autumn, which under normal circumstances coincides with the start of a new school year. But in Covid times, the only in-real-life interactions many of these girls have are these practices. Girls aged 5 to 18 start running laps—the older girls leading the way, the younger ones dawdling at the back—until they're instructed to sort themselves into two groups by age. As the low sound of chatter among friends starts to rise, it's abruptly cut short by Coach Jaz. "Listening skills are what?" she asks. "Life or death", they respond in unison.

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Coach Jaz and team

As a former hockey and lacrosse player growing up in the city, Smith, 43, was often the only Black girl on her team. Years later, while coaching a local club team, she realised that diversity on the field hadn't improved at all. "I was like, nothing's changed", she says. "This is ridiculous". As of 2019, female athletes of colour represented only 16 percent of all Division I lacrosse players. Two percent were Black.

The older girls begin cradling drills—running while keeping the ball in the stick's pocket. A few of the greener recruits spill balls across the ground. Nyobi Murphy, 15, however, sprints back and forth, gripping the stick with confidence. Nearby, Ayanna Reese, 18, a goalie, is preparing gear for the team's next drill. Later, when the girls partner up to practise scooping ground balls, Erin Mobley, 15, runs in place to stay by a younger player's side, encouraging her as she struggles to manoeuvre her stick. Nyobi, Ayanna and Erin are the pillars of the team. These three young women embody all the ideals that Eyekonz was created to foster: dedication to the game, to the team, to the community and to themselves.

We talked sisterhood, affirmations and overcoming prejudice.

Meet the Team

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Coach Jazmine Smith
A lifelong athlete, Coach Jaz has always been adamant about doing what's right: "I'm very strong in my beliefs in terms of advocacy and racial justice". As a teenager, the skewed racial demographics of her beloved sport nagged at her. For years, she wondered how she could bring more Black girls into the world of lacrosse and hockey. With Eyekonz, she does just that while also making sure that every teammate is set up for success, on and off the field. "We use sports as a mechanism to make sure kids are sound academically", she explains. "But also to help with self-worth and self-esteem".

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Kai Coleman, 17
"I didn't even know what lacrosse was", Kai says, recalling how nervous she felt at her first practice. "There were so many girls there and they were all just so talented". She credits Eyekonz with boosting her confidence and providing an outlet through which she can channel negative energy. "You might have had a hard day, but you come to lacrosse practice and you can create something positive", she says. "It's like euphoria".

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Nyobi Murphy, 16
"My first time practising with Coach Jaz was a very new experience", Nyobi says. Once a defender on her school's team, she explains, "I never got criticism. It was always, 'Good job, you're doing amazing'. [Coach Jaz] was like, 'You're a great player, but …' and that was kind of a new thing for me". Now a formidable midfielder, Nyobi is grateful to her coach for teaching her to accept and learn from criticism: "I feel like she's preparing me for greatness in the future".

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Keyla Jordan, 15
A consistent source of levity for her teammates, Keyla is described by Coach Jaz as "goofy—comedy central. She does what she needs to do, but at the same time, she's trying to make everything light. She's a good balance for the girls. She really has a pure heart".

Anai'ya Baskerville, 17
Anai'ya's late mother, Rosalyn, brought her daughter into the Eyekonz fold nearly four years ago. "When I was younger, in the car with my mom and my siblings, she had this song for 'I am' affirmations", Anai'ya says. "We used to sing them all the time".

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Sophia Poole, 15
Sophia had an earlier introduction than most to Eyekonz—Coach Jaz is her mum. She was five years old when she began playing lacrosse and it's clear that she's inherited her mother's drive and determination. "I'm still learning how to train with my asthma", she says. "That's definitely a weak point". The midfielder has had her eye on playing D1 lacrosse since she was in the sixth grade and says the sport has taught her to be a better communicator. "It's given me a different way to express myself", she says.

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Dayana Allen, 16
"You can trust that if she gets the ball, she's going to circulate it in whatever play is needed", Coach Jaz says of Dayana, a headstrong attacker with hopes of making it to Division I. "She has the opportunity to be a great leader on the field". Preparing her for leadership requires discipline, however. "There are a lot of growing pains because this model is not like any other sports programme", Coach Jaz says. "She's starting to mature and understand what hard love is".

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Naomi Green, 16
Reflecting on her favourite team ritual, Naomi says the "I am" affirmations have changed the way she looks at herself. "When I first learnt it, I was like, 'Oh, this is kind of weird to talk to myself'. But later, I actually started doing it at home—and believing it".

Ayanna Reese, 18
"She's really the glue that keeps the team together", Coach Jaz says of Ayanna. The soft-spoken goalie's introduction to the sport came not long after Coach Jaz spotted her at school and encouraged her to try it out.

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Erin Mobley, 16
Erin came to Eyekonz after being introduced to lacrosse in an after-school beginners' camp. "It was just a whole different experience with Coach Jaz", she says. "I'm glad I came here because I can feel myself, after every season, I can feel the growth". Active both on and off the field, Erin is a member of the Eyekonz Legal Coalition and helped organise a team march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020.

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Naja Johnson, 16
"With each player, it's much deeper than just getting on the field", says Coach Jaz. "Each kid comes with something that prevents them from achieving a certain level of success on the field". In Naja's case, her coaches eventually learnt that the gifted athlete was being moved through the foster care system. "Before I joined Eyekonz I was thinking about quitting lacrosse, but Miss Jaz inspired me to keep going. [Eyekonz] has been a saving grace because sometimes you just need some help and support", says the recent recruit.

You call your teammates sisters. Does it feel like you're part of a family?

Nyobi: We're all the same: We're all African-American girls who love this sport and want to play it and dominate in it. Coach Jaz always used to say we stand on our ancestors' shoulders when we're playing on this field. Calling each other sisters makes us all feel like we came from the same ancestors and we need to work together like we are family.

"They're not only paving the way for themselves, they're teaching people who do not look like them that we belong here".

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Nyobi and Nyla Numan

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Nyla and Nyobi

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team
Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Nyobi and Nyla Numan

From left: Nyla and Nyobi

How do you welcome new members to the team and get them into that family mindset?

Coach Jaz: Our programme is year-round, so whenever someone wants to join, they can join in. There's a buddy system so that they don't feel isolated. Joining a new team, people typically quit because they don't know anybody. Buddies walk them through, make introductions, and then from there, they get warmed up and in a groove with the team.

Nyobi: Erin, haven't we been buddies before?

Erin: I think I've been buddies with everybody right here.

What are some other Eyekonz team rituals?

All: "I am" affirmations.

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Dayana Allen

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Adriana Britt

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team
Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Dayana Allen

Adriana Britt

Tell me about "I am" affirmations.

Nyobi: It's a tradition to boost our self-confidence on the field. Coach Jaz will hold up this long mirror, and we have to look at ourselves, be as serious as possible and tell ourselves, "I am ... blank". So you can be like, I am strong, I am beautiful, I am a beast, I am a force of nature. That one is Coach Jaz's favourite.

I notice that when new people do it, usually they already have these self-confidence issues, and they're not used to seriously talking to themselves. Coach Jaz will make you stand there, and she'll wait until you look yourself in the eye. She'll be like: "Change your posture, change your tone of voice. Keep your shoulders back". She makes sure we're able to look at ourselves with absolute confidence and know that we're amazing young athletes, and we can do whatever we believe is possible.

How do the "I am" affirmations give you the confidence to rise above the challenges you face on and off the field?

Nyobi: We're not really a majority in this sport, so we need the mental stability to be able to compete with other people who've probably been playing this game since they were born.

Coach Jaz:
The majority of the time, we're playing against teams that are entirely white. Part of playing this game is breaking glass ceilings. They're not only paving the way for themselves, they're teaching people who do not look like them that we belong here.

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Nyobi, Ayanna, Erin

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Ayanna Reese

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Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Nyobi and Erin

What is it like walking onto fields in predominantly white neighbourhoods?

Ayanna: Sometimes they're nice, but then sometimes they're not. I feel like they're scared that we're actually great. One time, while playing goalie, I stopped a girl's shot and her dad got mad because they were losing.

Coach Jaz: I've always known this town [we were visiting] to be very racist. Ayanna had stopped maybe her sixth goal at this point, and this father, he went belligerently red and just went off. He threw something and started charging onto the field toward our players. The ref was there, but he was about to push her. I had to go onto the field, and the ref told him, "Get off the field or I'm calling the cops". It was horrible to witness, but it was a learning experience.

Ayanna: I was just shocked and confused the whole time.

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Vivian Saintil, Milan Smalls, Erin

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Vivian Saintil, Milan Smalls, Erin

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team
Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Vivian Saintil, Milan Smalls, Erin

From left: Zorah Bradford, Millia Bonney, Nyobi, Sonia Diaz, Ayanna, Azeezah Jones

How do your teammates keep you going?

Nyobi: We all love this [sport], and this is genuinely our hangout time. This is a time when we sit down, take breaths. When we're passing, catching, we're always talking, catching up, talking about each other's lives.

Ayanna:
Sometimes, my anxiety gets to me, and then I start overthinking, and I just won't show up at all. They help boost my self-esteem, they tell me I can do it, that I'm good.

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Kai, Tatiana Walker, Keyla, Erin, and Qadan Johnson

Last summer, Eyekonz put on a march as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement. How did you come up with that idea?

Erin: We wanted to do something to bring awareness to Black women who've been brutalised by the police. It was an idea from an Eyekonz teammate on a Zoom call, and then we all just figured out how to bring it together.

"We're not really a majority in this sport, so we need the mental stability to be able to compete with other people who've probably been playing this game since they were born".

Nyobi: Coach Jaz said, "We can do this, you guys need to get it together". And with a bit of foundation and a push, we were able to make this whole thing happen. I feel like that brought a lot of inspiration to us. Because we felt like we could make an idea real. It was just a small African-American female who was inspired by something she'd seen, and the hurt that she felt from the police brutality that was happening in the world right now. The fact that that idea came to light and we were able to push that forward into an entire coalition, into an entire march that got recognition from all over, I felt like—this is gonna make me cry—I felt like that was really important to us.

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

Erin Mobley

What did you learn from hosting the march?

Nyobi: You can do anything you believe in, as long as you have the idea and you're willing to push that forward and you're willing to do whatever it takes to do that.

How did you cope as a team when the mayor shut down the city in late 2020?

Coach Jaz: We went back to Zoom workouts, which kept the girls engaged with one another. But unfortunately, that's also when Rosalyn passed away, Anai'ya's mom. I talked to her before she went into the ICU, and it was the most chilling conversation—she said, "Coach, don't forget. Make sure you get Anai'ya into college". She was coughing, and I said, "I want you to relax, get yourself together so you can feel better". And shortly after that, she went into the ICU. It was devastating.

They had a funeral, and we knew the girls couldn't go to the service. We decided to create a parade outside of the church so that the girls could hold posters. That way, when Anai'ya, Cookie and Adriana came out, they would be able to see that their team was there to support them.

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Adriana and Katelyn Britt

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Nyla and Qadan

Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team
Meet Philadelphia’s Eyekonz Girls Lacrosse Team

From left: Adriana and Katelyn Britt

From left: Nyla and Qadan

Now 8 years old, Adriana already has three years of lacrosse training under her belt. Drawn to the sport for the simple reason of wanting to be near her older sister, she now knows that she loves being on the field in her own right. "I like how I get more exercise, I eat healthy", Adriana says, rattling off the reasons she loves Eyekonz. "It's something that my coach has helped me with".

The sisters make their way back to the practice, walking with the purpose of a team that knows that together they can accomplish whatever they set their eyes on: the state championship or even a march for Black lives.

Smith looks out across the field and beckons to a younger player who is running laps half-heartedly with her hair long and loose in twists swinging around her head. Smith instructs her to put her hair up, but the girl protests—she doesn't have a hair tie, plus her hairstyle is freshly done. "Listen", Smith says, as she borrows an elastic hairband from someone on the sidelines and pulls the girl's hair into a ponytail. "You are an athlete, and athletes have to keep their hair out of their face". Tough love administered, she points the fledgling lacrosse player towards the path she was on and tells her to run the last lap like she means it. Eyekonz players set the bar high, and then push one another to clear it.

Words: Roxanne Fequiere
Photography: Laurel Golio, Gillian Laub
Video: Gillian Laub, Meerkat Media

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